Advice for your gap year, from someone who’s been there

There is, by definition, (or perhaps more accurately, by intrinsic nature) no “right” way to experience your bridge year. It’s an intensely personal period of growth, learning, and challenge that my words can in no way instruct you on or prepare you for. No two people will have the same experience.

This blog relates particularly to my experience with Global Citizen Year, but is applicable for any year of your life. What follows are the small bits of wisdom I’ve ordained, which will no doubt inform my decisions for years to come.

Say, “yes”.

When you’re living with another family of another culture in another country, everything is a window into their way of life. Absolutely everything. Whether your host dad wants to take you to the market, or your brother wants you to hang out with his friends, or your neighbor wants to teach you to meditate, your answer should, at the very least, be “I’ll think about it”. You owe this much to yourself. Consider it, even (read: especially) if you never would have done it back home. A resounding “yes”, or even a hesitant, slightly concerned one, can change the course of your year. It might work out. It might not. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the saying goes. It’s important to note that the “yes” is not directed at others, but rather, at yourself. Whether or not you choose to accept the invitations that will pile in your proverbial mailbox, you should always be saying yes to you. Yes,I can do this. Yes, I do want this. Yes, I am making the right decisions. Be true to yourself. Sometimes these opportunities aren’t directly presented to you. So go out and grab them. If nobody asks you to join, ask them. A smile could be all it takes, or a funny joke, or perhaps a potent dance move. “Dance first, ask questions later” was my philosophy for much of my time in Pune, and it made me most of my friends.

Get ready to learn. 

There are going to be innumerable aspects of the culture, environment, and lifestyle you immerse yourself in that are different from what you expect, what you like, or what you’re used to. Try to be prepared. When you’re (inevitably) not, be prepared to try. No matter how much you read up on the norms, customs, language, etc… You will mess up. You will do things wrong. You will be the silly foreigner on the sitcom that just doesn’t get it. So just roll with the punches, laugh at yourself, and ask a lot of questions. I would say “challenge yourself”, but there’s an entire country waiting to challenge you. This extends beyond differences between you and your host community; it also encompasses the new context you’ll find yourself in. That is to say, the new structure of your life. The contents of your world will be radically different, but so will the scale and shape. You might be engaging with people on a level you may never have before. You might have much more freedom than you know what to do with. You might find yourself branching out in ways you never imagined. After high school is when most people take their first true steps into the unfiltered and uncut “real world”, and for you, this experience will be compounded with living in another country, or working full time without attending school, or being without your family for the first time in your life. Whatever form your year takes, it will almost certainly be something you’ve never experienced, and perhaps aren’t prepared for. So buckle down and embrace the new flow of your life. Get to know yourself, and the world around you.

Focus on the now. 

It can be tempting, and rightfully so, to think about where you’ll go after your bridge year. You may look around and be having second thoughts about your career path, or you may believe ever more strongly that it’s what you want. Well, I encourage you to focus on today, on your bridge year. This is a wholly unique experience in your life. You are likely embarking on your first year of independence, and you’re free from the burden of test scores and homework so you can really delve into what it means to be an adult, what it means to be a member of a community, what it means to be a global citizen, and most importantly, what it means to be YOU. So take a deep breath. Slow down. Look to the left. Look to the right. Take it all in. This year can and will be a stepping stone, but you don’t have to know what the next step is just yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. This experience will sit with you for a long time. Some parts of it won’t sit well. They’ll bubble inside you, make you uncomfortable, and you’ll find yourself feeling a little queazy and more than a little confused. You probably won’t know how to digest it for a while, and you’ll have to spend many a late night reflecting. So, instead of thinking about your plans coming out of your bridge year, commit to focusing on today. You will do great things. For now, do this. And do it well.